In China, Ford Cars Smell Like Nothing at All

As Ford’s car marketing in China demonstrates, there’s nothing like having local knowledge to build a successful business.

Unlike the brand’s customers in the West, who relish the smell of a new car – the leather, the wood, the plastic dashboard – its Chinese consumers prefer just the opposite, which makes sourcing the interior components much trickier since being selected for smell is an attribute most global tier 1 suppliers have never had to consider… until now.

Ford’s research plant near Nanjing has assembled a full-time panel of 18 “golden noses,” whose jobs are to ensure the materials to be fitted for the interior have no smell at all, as a recent study by US-based automotive research firm J D Power identified that unpleasant car smells where the number one concern for new car buyers in China, even more so than fuel consumption or aspects of the engine.

As reported in the New York Times’ recent article, being a golden nose means testing a variety of materials – seat covers, steering wheels, carpets – so they can be categorised into “bad meat,” “dirty socks,” “moth balls” and other evocative descriptors.  One of the many drivers of the importance of a car’s smell in China is the concerns of many in the country about air pollution and the toxicity of chemicals.

As custom brand scents in my view are one of the greatest under-leveraged opportunities that CMO’s can deploy in their marketing armoury, clearly this gives Ford the opportunity to develop a smell for its cars in China that neutralize or are sensed as pleasant by its target customers, much like hotel groups Hilton and IHG have been doing for years.

While Mercedes and Jaguar have commissioned perfumers to create drugstore-distributed colognes for men and women to grow the reach of their brands, Ford may end up doing the same which taps the need in China that can be scaled elsewhere.

Exactly which elements would make up a Ford smell is anybody’s guess.  What is clear is dirty socks won’t be one of them.

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